With current restrictions effecting how theatres will operate, this year’s impact has brought with it many challenges that have brought with it new ways of thinking. Returning to the Arcola Theatre after playing a part in the building’s inception 20 years ago, stage designer Jon Bausor has played a crucial role in designing the venue’s new Covid friendly space ‘Arcola Outside’. Ahead of the venue’s opening in December, Jon tells us more about the designing process.

Hi Jon, you’re the designer of the Arcola’s new performance space ‘Arcola Outside’ due to open in December. How are you feeling ahead of the venue’s opening?


 I’m incredibly excited to be involved in creating a Covid friendly space for the ever forward thinking Arcola Theatre to bring much needed live art and entertainment back in Ashwin Street, Dalston. Having been involved in the Arcola since its inception on Arcola Street in 2000 this important theatre has been crucial to the theatre and artistic education of myself and many of my peers. So I’m very happy and honoured to return 20 years later to try and give some of what I’ve learnt back to provide an exciting new platform for artists at this incredibly difficult time. 


The venue will open for a series of trial performances, how will this help inform any adaptations that need to be made?


This initial soft opening will allows us to really test in reality what has been up until this point an exercise on paper….well, laptop screen. Just like in a theatre preview where the entire team get to tweak and adapt a show to the new audience, our trial opening will allow us to understand and get the space right in terms of flow and interactivity with the audience allowing for a correct social distancing as well as the look and feel of the site.

 
How have you collaborated with the Arcola to realise their vision?


From the outset the project has been one of collaboration with all relevant members of the Arcola team, working with Nadia on the Bar, Jack on the performance and stage layout, Geoff on site management and Leyla and Arcola on logistics and vision for the space. We’ve had regular ZOOM meetings as I’ve designed the space listening to their needs and expectations as well as managing the many issues at hand from building regulations to budget. From that, I’ve evolved the design, tweaking and reworking the plans and drawings. 


How have you found designing the space for our new normal? Have the changing restrictions caused any challenges?


The new normal is an ever changing thing, so its been a challenge! I’ve paid a massive amount of attention to creating adequate space between seats and in aisles to allow for social distancing which in turn has caused headaches on trying to keep the audience capacity as high as possible. It’s a bit of a mathematical game, but one which I’ve enjoyed into the small hours on a few occasions! It’s also been important to keep my eye on future proofing the venue to allow for changes in the law as well as for a world hopefully post Covid keeping the venue flexible enough to be reconfigured and reimagined. 


The space will continue the Arcola’s commitment to sustainability. How will this be achieved?


The space has designed to be as low impact as possible. It is a low waste project that reuses reclaimed and recycled materials repurposing as much as possible whilst also allowing for a repurposing in the future.

 
How have you found returning to the Arcola two decades later to support them on this designing project?


It’s been exciting to return and reacquaint myself with why Fringe theatre is so important and such an exciting, can-do dynamic. Whilst the company has grown and evolved from the minimally staffed, under resourced beginnings that Mehmet and Leyla created on Arcola Street, the ambition and drive hasn’t changed, and I’m thrilled to be back to evolve it further, this time on Ashwin Street.


Have you learned anything new from designing the space? Whether that be about your practice, the theatre industry, the wider world?


Designing a roof has been a challenge and I’ve been working with a structural engineer colleague, Philip Cooper whom I first collaborated with designing a tilted mirrored ceiling for a production of Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ at Regent Park Open Air Theatre, a ceiling that appeared to defy gravity. Philip and I have worked very closely to work through a complex brief of creating a bespoke temporary structure, with the budget way below anything available from an ‘off the shelf’ solution from specialist manufacturers. My knowledge of engineering has been pushed and increased as has my love and respect for it as a creative science. 

Until lockdown in March this year, my creative practice had existed within a studio with support from assistants working within it. This has obviously not necessarily been possible with laws on social distancing and lock down so my work and the collaboration and assistance that I receive now has had to evolve to operate virtually, and through digital means. I have been lucky enough to have a brilliant team who were able to cope with this evolution, with one of them Tina Torbey working hard and speedily to work up the drawings. 

It’s also been great to re-engage with the hard working freelancers that are crucial to making theatre here in the UK and especially those in the fringe, smaller scale side of theatre who often go on to become the future leaders of our industry. 

What can audiences expect from the space?

I’ve been careful to design a warm feeling, inclusive environment that is welcoming and feels at home within its environment, yet is a tranquil and surprising escape from the urban world beyond its walls. Initially a 90 seater theatre and bar using repurposed shipping containers and used scaffolding boards and ladders, the design is a reimagining of an Ottoman nomadic tent, or yurt, with a square domed appearance and woven design that takes its cues from Turkish tapestry. It will be a flexible, multi-purpose space, able to host live performances, screenings, installations etc.. designed and able to operate safely and unobtrusively within the rules of social distancing, providing an exciting and important addition in the heart of the Dalston community. 

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

To find out more about Arcola Outside and the Arcola Theatre, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop